By: Robert Tanner and Sharon L. Crenson, Associated Press Writers
(AP) A vote-by-vote review of untallied ballots in the 2000 Florida presidential election indicates George W. Bush would have narrowly prevailed in the partial recounts sought by Al Gore, but Gore might have reversed the outcome — by the barest of margins — had he pursued and gained a complete statewide recount.
Bush eventually won Florida, and thus the White House, by 537 votes out of more than 6 million cast. But questions about the uncounted votes lingered.
Almost a year after that cliffhanger conclusion, a media-sponsored review of the more than 175,000 disputed ballots underscored that the prize of the U.S. presidency came down to an almost unimaginably small number of votes.
The new data, compiled by The Associated Press and seven other news organizations, also suggested that Gore followed a legal strategy after Election Day that would have led to defeat even if it had not been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore sought a recount of a relatively small portion of the state’s disputed ballots while the review indicates his only chance lay in a course he advocated publicly but did not pursue in court — a full statewide recount of all Florida’s untallied votes.
“We are a nation of laws and the presidential election of 2000 is over,” Gore said Sunday in a prepared statement. “Right now, our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush’s efforts to achieve that goal.”
Said Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer: “The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on.”
Against the backdrop of the disputed Nov. 7, 2000, election, the news organizations set out earlier this year to examine as many as possible of the ballots set aside as either undervotes or overvotes. Undervotes involved about 62,000 ballots where voting machines were unable to detect a choice for any presidential candidate, while about 113,000 overvotes were read by machines as possibly containing more than one choice.
The goal of the news organizations was not to learn who really “won” Florida; the Electoral College already had determined Bush was the winner following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended further counting and led to Gore’s concession. The aim was to provide a valuable historical record by thoroughly assessing tens of thousands of ballots that no one had fully examined.
Much of the legal wrangling focused on how votes were defined, and the ballot review did, too, calculating results under different standards — for example, whether to count as votes “hanging chads” on punch-card ballots or ballots marked with an “X” instead of the required filled-in oval on optical scan ballots.
Completing two partial recounts that Gore unsuccessfully pursued in court showed Bush maintaining a lead ranging between 225 and 493 votes — meaning Bush still would have won if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a partial statewide recount to continue.
Under any standard that tabulated all disputed votes statewide, however, Gore erased Bush’s advantage and emerged with a tiny lead that ranged from 42 to 171 votes.
Strikingly, all these outcomes were closer than even the narrow 537 votes of Bush’s official victory. With numbers that tiny, experts said it would be impossible to interpret the survey results as definitive.
Under the most inclusive standards, the study showed up to 24,653 potentially salvageable overvotes and undervotes among the 12 presidential candidates who ran in Florida.
The Florida election review was developed by the AP, CNN, The New York Times, The Palm Beach Post, The St. Petersburg Times, Tribune Publishing, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Tribune newspapers include the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale.
This media consortium hired the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago to view each untallied ballot and gather information about how it was marked. Founded in 1941, the center is a not-for-profit corporation whose charter is to advance the methodology of public opinion surveys and provide accurate survey data.
The consortium used computers to sort and tabulate votes, based on varying scenarios that had been raised during the post-election scramble in Florida. County election officials made the ballots available to NORC under state and local laws.
A NORC supervisor said county officials sometimes had difficulties identifying the exact ballots that went untallied on Election Day. Because of that, along with the possibility that ballot observers mistook some data in such a mammoth tabulation, it would be impossible to guarantee which candidate prevailed if the margins were within a few hundred votes, he said.
“As that differential between the two candidates becomes smaller and smaller, there’s the potential that the inherent variability in the data could be larger than that minimal difference,” said Kirk Wolter, senior vice president for statistics and methodology who helped supervise the project for NORC. Wolter spoke before the results were known.
As President Bush and the nation address a host of new concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, those who once were embroiled in the Florida political contest — on either side — had little reaction.
Bush would not comment directly, Fleischer said, adding: “It’s over.”
“You’ve got to accept it, put the bitterness aside and move ahead,” a key adviser to Gore, Carter Eskew, said Sunday. He added, however, that the results backed up the conviction of Democrats that their man had won.
Florida’s election saw 6.1 million votes cast, and county figures suggest that more than 176,000 ballots, or 2.9%, never made it into the certified totals.
That percentage is not unusual and likely would have attracted little attention but for the closeness of the outcome. Nationwide last year, about 2% of ballots were disqualified. Some states were far higher: Illinois with 3.9%, Georgia 3.5%, and South Carolina 3.4% of votes untallied for a variety of reasons.
Gore outpolled Bush by 540,000 votes nationwide, but the presidency is decided in the Electoral College. Each candidate desperately needed Florida to win and, at the end of an agonizing Election Night, Bush held a slim lead, putting the focus on Florida’s uncounted absentee ballots and disputed votes. The vice president’s campaign rallying cry soon became “count all the votes.” Gore’s legal strategy, however, was to pursue a narrower recount.
At first, Gore’s attorneys sought a hand recount of all 1.8 million ballots cast in the predominantly Democratic counties of Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Volusia. Later, Gore and Democratic supporters argued for recounts in various other counties.
The Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of undervotes on Dec. 8, but it was stopped the next day by the U.S. Supreme Court and the legal action returned to state courts.
Gore used public appearances to call for a full accounting of the vote in Florida more than once, but Bush rejected the idea and the Democrats never pushed that option in court. Republicans argued that hand recounts opened the door to bias and as various counties performed recounts, Bush’s advocates argued variously for more and less restrictive standards.
A pivotal moment came Nov. 26, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris — saying she was following state law — certified Bush the winner by 537 votes.
On Dec. 13, the closest presidential contest in decades finally ended 36 days after Election Day following a contentious 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed Harris’ certification to stand. Gore accepted the verdict and, with that, Bush won Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency.
The court’s decision ending Gore’s efforts to pursue a recount of the undervote spoke to the importance of including overvote in any comprehensive ballot review.
“A manual recount of all ballots identifies not only those ballots which show no vote but also those which contain more than one, the so-called overvotes,” the court said. “Neither category will be counted by the machine. This is not a trivial concern.”
Gore never did press in court for a full recount and the strategy he followed to seek the undervotes alone would not likely have benefited him. When the consortium tabulations tried to recreate the partial recounts Gore did pursue, those two scenarios kept Bush ahead:
* FOUR COUNTIES. If Gore had been successful in his initial efforts for recounts of all ballots in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, and Volusia counties.
Result: Bush ahead by 225 votes.
* STATEWIDE UNDERVOTE: If the state Supreme Court-ordered recount on Dec. 9 had not been stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court. The review considered this scenario under two different criteria — one that followed the court’s literal instruction to examine only undervotes and another that followed the intentions of each county’s election officials, some of whom told reporters they also would examine overvotes.
Result: Bush ahead, with a range of 430 to 493.
In the review of all the state’s disputed ballots, Gore edged ahead under all six scenarios for counting all undervotes and overvotes statewide:
* PREVAILING STANDARD: County election officials told Florida journalists how they would define votes if required to do a recount and in this scenario the majority standard was imposed statewide. A notable element of this standard was that, in punch-card counties, ballots with at least one corner of a chad detached counted as votes.
Result: Gore ahead by 60 votes.
* TWO-CORNER STANDARD: At least two corners of a chad must be detached to count as a vote, a position that had been argued, at times, by Bush supporters. Same as prevailing standard for optical scan ballots.
Result: Gore ahead by 105 votes.
* MOST INCLUSIVE: Ballots with dimpled chads count as votes, an argument often made by Gore supporters. Same as prevailing standard for optical scan ballots.
Result: Gore ahead by 107 votes.
* LEAST INCLUSIVE: Only cleanly punched chads count as valid votes. For optical scan, only fully filled ovals and those ballots on which a voter filled in the oval and wrote in the candidate’s name, too.
Result: Gore ahead by 115 votes.
* COUNTY-by-COUNTY: Drawn from the county election officials. It accepts results from Broward and Volusia counties because those counties completed hand counts that were included in state-certified election totals. For those counties that said they would not count overvotes, relies on prevailing standard.
Result: Gore ahead by 171 votes.
* PALM BEACH STANDARD: Based on a standard Palm Beach election officials briefly used, this counts dimpled chads as valid votes if a pattern of dimpled chads exists elsewhere on the same ballot. Same as prevailing standard for optical scan ballots.
Result: Gore ahead by 42 votes.
Eskew said Gore and campaign strategists had wanted to count all the votes, but that some had doubted whether it could be accomplished quickly enough.
In general, the National Opinion and Research Center had three people review each undervote and one review each overvote. When three-person teams were used, the AP analysis counted ballots only when at least two workers agreed on the markings.
A closer examination by the AP of where the candidates gained and lost votes indicated that Bush consistently stayed ahead when undervotes alone were counted in statewide scenarios. When the overvotes were included, Gore prevailed.
Last spring, The Miami Herald and USA Today published an accounting of thousands of uncertified undervote ballots, partnering with Knight Ridder newspapers, including the Tallahassee Democrat and The Bradenton Herald. Newspapers joining in a later study of overvote ballots were The Tampa Tribune, Florida Today, The News-Press, of Fort Myers and the Pensacola News Journal.
Looking at just undervotes, the group’s conclusion was similar to that of the media consortium — that Bush would likely have maintained his lead if a statewide hand-count had been completed. The Herald-USA Today review of both undervotes and overvotes rendered a split: Bush would have stayed ahead under the strictest standards for judging votes, while Gore would have broken on top under the most liberal.
The Herald-USA Today group did not examine all the ballots in person, relying in part on computer records of disputed votes.
The election spurred many other examinations of the Florida voting, including a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights study that found black voters’ ballots were disproportionately thrown out.
The AP, in a separate examination into demographics and precinct-level voting patterns, found that precincts with higher percentages of black registered voters were likely to have higher percentages of ballots that could not be tallied by machines. Of 4,468 precincts where at least 500 ballots were cast, the 20 with the highest percentage of ballots thrown out were all at least 80% black.
The separate review also found that 18 counties with confusing, two-column and two-page presidential ballots had higher error rates than other counties. Design was also the problem with the notorious butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, where thousands of elderly voters said they mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant Gore.
In Duval County, where the ballot spread presidential candidates across two pages, an astounding 21,942 voters marked their ballots for more than one presidential candidate — more than in any other Florida county.
The lack of guidance in Florida law added to the confusion. It required only that election officials, in a recount, simply determine “the intent of the voter.”
The law since has been changed to outlaw punch cards and set wide-open standards for accepting imperfect ballots. The proposed new standards would accept ballots with a candidate’s name circled or if an X, star, or “any other mark” touches the candidate’s oval.
In Palm Beach County, officials at one point considered dimpled chads as viable votes and at another imposed a stricter standard. In Lake County, overvotes in which voters wrote in the name of the same candidate they had marked were disqualified on Election Day by county election officials. In Volusia County’s recount, such overvotes were accepted.
“It’s obvious what the voter’s intent was,” said retired Volusia County Judge Michael McDermott, who oversaw his county’s recount. “He wanted to vote for candidate X so much he voted for him twice.”
The imprecise nature of local election work caused confusion on Election Day itself, and again as the media-sponsored review tried to recreate the exact breakdown of certified and uncertified votes so the ballots could be examined.
Some counties came up with precisely the same number of untallied ballots, some were off by a handful, some by hundreds. In the course of the effort, officials in Franklin County found a glitch that had mistakenly given Gore an extra vote, meaning Bush’s official victory margin should have been 538.
Ultimately, the consortium viewed 175,010 ballots.
The review’s results ultimately reflect the hairsbreadth split in the election, said Doug Lewis, an elections administration expert who has spent the past year working on improving voting systems and laws.
“You always hope they’re never this close,” Lewis said. “But reality was, it was.” While it may not clear up all the political debate, he said, the review does provide the public with a better accounting of what happened to those ballots officials never viewed — and how officials can stop such confusion from happening again.
AP writer David Royse in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.
On the Net: